After eating all that turkey, save some room for some Asian American literature! In this post, reviews of Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Cathay (Codhill Press, 2007); Jon Pineda’s Sleep in Me (University of Nebraska Press, 2010); May-Lee Chai’s Dragon Chica (GemmaMedia, 2011); Yuliana Kim-Grant’s A Shred of Hope (Aberdeen Bay, 2011); and Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s The Two Krishnas (Magnus Books, 2011).
A Review of Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Cathay (Codhill Press, 2007)
Cathay was a totally surprising read for me. Heinz Insu Fenkl, who is known for his Korean American literary anthology, Kori, as well as his autobiographical novel, Memories of My Ghost Brother, has created a mixed-genre work that is a hybrid of translation, folktale, and fiction. Cathay obviously takes much inspiration from Ezra Pounds writings and Pound’s creative reconsideration of the Chinese ideogram, a central inspiration for his imagist poetry. As has been famously detailed by many, Pound took a quite liberal approach to his translations, but instead of pushing for a kind of ethnic authenticity, Fenkl employs Pound’s methodology to inform his own creative reconsiderations of particular myths, legends, and fables. Much of this genre-busting work is influenced by spirituality and religion, especially in connection with Buddhism, but rather than discuss all the various pieces at length, I’ll focus on a couple that I found particularly compelling. In one particular piece, Fenkl basically revises Han Christian Andersen’s famous tale, “The Nightingale,” by being more attentive to culturally specific signifiers from the Tang dynasty period. Other changes are important to this story, namely the fact that the “bird” in question is actually a peasant girl that the emperor basically imprisons her in his court for some time, until he is able to get a mannequin made which produces ballads in what is considered to be a perfect voice and without variation. The emperor of course later falls sick only to be nursed back to the health through the beautiful voice and singing abilities of the peasant girl. She is even able to discourage Death (personified) from taking the emperor’s life. She does not ask for a reward, but rather asks to sing in the presence of a man, rather than someone of such an esteemed position. In this way, the conclusion to this version reveals the importance of humility and deviates quite considerably from the Andersen version. In the prologue to this re-writing, Fenkl suggests that this version is actually older than the Andersen one, such that the questions of authenticity and origin point come into play yet again. My favorite piece in this work is titled “How Master Madman Came to Ch’ing Feng Temple.” I’m not familiar with the historical documents that Fenkl was working with, but if I understand what is going on correctly here, Fenkl employs partial Chinese historical records and other official documents as the basis for the story, but must fill in the gaps. The subtitle to this book is “translations & transformations” and we can see that this story engages in both translation from the original language source and transformation in the sense that Fenkl must embellish upon what little is known. The ostensible protagonist, Yang, appears at one point to switches bodies with a bandit, but this only occurs after having witnessed two demons fight over their right to consume both he and this bandit. It is really unclear how this process happens, but because Yang is a particularly entitled young fellow, this experience leaves him rethinking the nature of the self in relation to Buddhist philosophy. How can one determine who one really is? Has Yang always been a form of a bandit, given all of this privilege and his wealth, a position that has not necessarily led him to think much about others? These questions form the basis of a philosophical inquiry that the story advances. I found this particular piece to be the most analytically engaging overall.
I’d like to end this brief review just by stating that this book reminds me of some of the recent trends that problematize how Asian American literature has been defined linguistically. We’re used to thinking about Asian American literatures as those works written primarily in English by American writers of Asian descent. At the same time, the inclusion of Angel Island poetry in the Heath Anthology and the critical interventions of some scholars who have suggested the geographical setting within a text, regardless of linguistic origin, give us the grounds to label a particular text as Asian American. Fenkl’s Cathay also intervenes in this area, as it functions as translation (from an Asian source into English), but also as fiction (written from Fenkl’s position as an American-centered writer), and the hazy boundary between the two make this particular mixed-genre work a fruitful exemplar of the complications and complexities that hallmark any Asian American literary text.
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A Review of Jon Pineda’s Sleep in Me (University of Nebraska Press, 2010).
One of the great things about being a part of this online Asian American literary community (and if you haven’t joined up, perhaps you should!) is that we build on each other’s knowledge base. I was alerted to Jon Pineda’s Sleep in Me only because of Pylduck’s post on it that can be found here:
After reading through Pylduck’s review, I can’t say that I have much to add. We have similar responses to the text. While some might consider this work to be a memoir, I tend also to think of it as prose poetry, obviously informed by Pineda’s creative writing background that includes the publication of two previous poetry collections. I found this work to be quite beautiful and also quite devastating. Pineda essentially has written an extended elegy to his sister. As with any great creative nonfictional works, Pineda is able to focus a critical gaze upon himself, especially as he occasionally struggles to deal with the his sister, Rica, in the wake of a serious car accident that leaves her wheelchair bound, unable to speak in full sentences, and with permanent scars and deformities on her body. She is ultimately and fully dependent upon the support of others simply to do the most basic daily tasks. The title is apt because it references one of Rilke’s poems related to Orpheus, the Greek character who would travel to the underworld in order to try to take his love back outside. We can think of Pineda’s project as a kind of prose poetic revival of Rica’s life, before and after her accident, an attempt to render her life with as much complexity and reflection as is possible given its very short and tragic duration. If Rica is the emotional center to this work, her presence reflects strongly against Pineda’s maturation and his desire to assume an unadulterated manhood. With the absence of his father, Pineda’s younger self feels this lack of paternal direction keenly; we’re not entirely surprised when wrestling becomes such an important activity to engage in, both in its physical exertion and in its signification as a male-dominated sporting discipline. Of course, Pineda also clarifies the complications of growing up as a biracial Filipino American, subject to questions of racial identity formation, multiple ancestries, and kinship ties. Pineda’s ability to weave all these different issues together under the guise of this elegiac memoir is a testament to incredibly rich texture of this work, the kind that exudes more riches on every subsequent reading.
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A Review of May-Lee Chai’s Dragon Chica (GemmaMedia, 2011).
May-Lee Chai’s Dragon Chica reminds us of the ways that Asian American literature is so often inspired by explicitly political impulses. The novel, one of many works already published by Chai (she is author or co-author of: My Lucky Face, Glamorous Asians, The Girl from Purple Mountain, and Hapa Girl) includes an important acknowledgements page, which explains: “When I was fifteen and writing for our town newspaper, a Sino-Cambodian family moved to our town to open a Chinese restaurant. The movie The Killing Fields had just opened. I interviewed the mother about her experiences under the Khmer Rouge, and she told me how three of her children had died before she could escape to a refugee camp in Thailand. However, her family received so many death threats that she moved the family away from out town before I could finish writing my article. My inability to tell her story has haunted me for years” (227). Chai does not fully explain her choice to use fiction as the means to partially tell this story, but it is clear that the lure of fiction is that one does not necessarily have to adhere to “real world” referents that might restrict a particular plot or character’s development. At the same time, it is also important to state that Chai obviously put a lot of work into detailing a very specific cultural context that she could not necessarily claim and engages a kind of ethnographically inspired fiction in the process. The protagonist is Nea Chhim, who is also our narrator and who tells us the story from a retrospective viewpoint. That is, she’s already an adult when the novel opens and reflects back upon her experiences primarily coming-of-age in Nebraska. She moves there with her mother, her older sister, Sourdi, her brother Sam, and twin younger sisters, Maly and Navy. Once there, they help out at a Chinese restaurant called The Palace, which is run by their Uncle and Aunt (also called Auntie). Times are difficult all around; Uncle and Auntie had to get money from a loan shark to open the restaurant and business at first is very bad. Compounding the stress is the fact that they are one of the few Asian families in the entire area, so their isolation and their experiences with racism further drain their resources and energy. Nea also grows up in an environment where practically all her relatives are in the United States as refugees, having survived the brutality and violence perpetrated under the Khmer Rouge. Chai takes time developing the brutal backstories of Auntie, in particular, and we see how such traumas are never quite fully healed. Chai is also quite successful at revealing the kinds of conflicts that Sourdi, Nea, and Sam face as new and foreign faces in regional area with a majority white population and whose minority populations consist primarily of those of indigenous and Mexican descents. At its core though Dragon Chica is a story of survival and the theme is best registered through Nea herself, who is a plucky, tactical, and realistic heroine. This novel succeeds because it steers entirely clear of sentimentality and though Nea definitely gets what I would consider to be an upward trajectory reminiscent of the traditional bildungsroman, Chai is committed to gritty and unadorned trajectories for other characters. When Nea receives quite incredible information about her own ancestry toward the conclusion of the novel, Chai leaves this knowledge open-ended and lets her protagonist revel in the murkiness that has been her entire life.
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A Review of Anjali Banerjee’s Haunting Jasmine (Berkley Trade, 2011).
At the center of Anjali’s Banerjee’s third adult-oriented novel, Haunting Jasmine, is the titular Jasmine Mistry, a recent divorcee, who leaves Los Angeles seeking a break from the stress of divorce proceedings. Banerjee is the author of numerous children’s books as well as two novels, Imaginary Men and Invisible Lives.
In this novel, Jasmine travels to Shelter Island, located in Washington State, at the behest of her Aunt Ruma, who owns a bookstore. Ruma has requested that Jasmine take over and manage the shop while she deals with what seems to be a physical ailment that requires her to travel to India. Jasmine is more adept at handling people’s retirement accounts than at helping to run an independent bookstore. She lacks the small town charm and people skills at first to effectively connect with her customers. Her often times tense relationship to another bookstore employee, Tony, reveals how little she understands of the culture that surrounds the independent bookstore. She does not necessarily give much attention to the intricacies of customer service and begins to rub off negatively on some of the regular customers. She further takes a rather technical, rather than affectual, approach to the bookstore, hoping to increase profits at the expense of the community-oriented atmosphere that Ruma had fostered. The other problem that comes up is, of course, the romantic one. Having been out of her marriage for about a year, Jasmine is dealing with whether or not she should or should not pursue possible romantic dalliances. One comes in the form of a man by the name of Connor Hunt, who aggressively pursues Jasmine, although she is at first quite reticent. Another dilemma emerges when Jasmine begins to hear voices. Yes, we begin to wonder, alongside Jasmine, whether she may or may not be going crazy. They seem to be connected more specifically to the bookstore and we begin to think that the bookstore itself may be haunted. If so, what do the ghosts want and how will Jasmine deal with the suggestions or the motivations of these apparent apparitions? Like Mah’s Kitchen Chinese, this novel seems more closely connected to the Chicklit genre. Banerjee, though, also clarifies some of the more difficult issues that come up with an Indian American woman marries outside of caste, class, and ethnic background. In some respects then, Jasmine surfaces as an iconoclast, having gone against the expectations of her cultural community. Banerjee’s novel is lighthearted fare, best served to those who like that combination of the romance with ethnic particularity.
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A Review of Yuliana Kim-Grant’s A Shred of Hope (Aberdeen Bay, 2011).
Yuliana Kim-Grant’s debut novel, A Shred of Hope, follows the lives of two families who are thrust together in the wake of an incredible tragedy. Jane Park and Terence Patterson, a young married couple, are brutally murdered in a hate crime. Jane’s parents had completely cut ties with Jane after she married Terence, primarily because Terence was African American. Terence’s parents, Walter and Beverly, take Jane in as if she is their daughter. Indeed, Beverly’s strained relationship with her biological daughter, Samantha, leaves her incredibly bereft when Jane and Terence are murdered. The novel thus deals with how both families face their losses. The novel is structured in seasons and the first is probably the most compelling. Kim-Grant employs an exceedingly interesting narrative technique that splits perspective essentially between Mrs. Park and Beverly Patterson. One chapter for instance will provide a narrative from Mrs. Park’s perspective, including her interactions with Beverly in the space of Jane’s apartment. The second chapter will include those same conversations, but this time, we’re in Beverly’s interiority. This approach makes us realize how subjective the nature of loss can be. Despite each mother having lost a child, their psychic interiorities are vastly different. Mrs. Park’s is primarily structured through the guilt of having essentially disowned her daughter and the fact that she must face the fact that her racist viewpoints have lead her to completely lose any contact with someone she so dearly loved. Beverly’s interiority is no less tortured, but is not framed from guilt, but rather based on how to keep her family together and deal with the tragedy. Some anger is obviously directed at the Park family for having not only disowned Jane, but also having repudiated Terence in the process as well. This opening narrative technique works so well that, I think, as a reader, I completely expected these characters to interact far more with each other. However, Kim-Grant pushes them in other directions. Mrs. Park learns to treat her students differently, as she teaches at music at a local school. She also decides to undertake an anthropological experiment in order to follow her daughter’s footsteps. Much of her courage is certainly attributable to the fact that she decides to face her demons; she also gets much needed guidance from a diary written by her daughter, selections of which are ingeniously interspersed throughout the book. For Beverly, her relationship with Samantha becomes front and center; we see that their rather perfunctory connection must be deepened if they are to survive as a family. Though the novel does tend to meander in the space of characters’ memories, Kim-Grant’s meticulous prose gives us an exceedingly realistic account of the painful geography of loss. Perhaps, most important to the novel’s heft, Kim-Grant’s narrative bravely tackles interracial dynamics linking Asian American and African American characters on a level I haven’t seen since Nina Revoyr’s kaleidoscopic novel, Southland.
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A Review of Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s The Two Krishnas (Magnus Books, 2011).
Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s second novel (after Ode to Lata) is a devastatingly depressing, but admirably depicted social realist work. In the context of the Indian transnational community, Dhalla’s novel reveals how fraught same-sex desire can be and the trajectory of the main characters seems to symbolically suggest there’s still much more work to be done. It’s hard to locate a central protagonist for this work; the omniscient narrator tends to follow three characters the most: Rahul Kapoor; Rahul’s wife Pooja; and Rahul’s lover, Atif. Rahul and Pooja also have one son named Ajay; Pooja has a couple of acquaintances, including a neighbor named Sonali and a man who runs a local yoga center named Charlie. Much of the first half of the novel is occasionally blunted by the establishment of romantic exposition. Dhalla works to meticulously paint the contours of the central romantic triangle that leaves all three characters wanting more. Pooja wonders what she can do to make herself more attractive to her husband and to make her family life more fulfilling; the home space essentially becomes oppressive, a constant reminder that her life in the United States has not been all that she had imagined it to be. Rahul attempts to navigate the perilous waters of the married man who wants to stay in the closet, maintain his family life and keep his young lover fulfilled. Atif, having fallen madly in love with Rahul, simply wants more time with him and the promise that there could be something more than a couple hours in the day for their trysts. As a more minor, but still important character, Ajay grows up without much conception of his identity as an Indian American by way of Kenya. Late into the novel, Dhalla thus adds an interesting sequenced portion that focuses on Pooja and Rahul’s life in Kenya in the early 80s, a time that some incredible political unrest and the persecution of those deemed to wield more power. By giving us this background, one that seems almost completely disarticulated from the main narrative arc, Dhalla seems to gesture to the ways in which repressed histories will always come to surface, that traumas and secrets must be confronted. Thus, ethnic pasts and queer sexuality both come to the surface as kinds of closets that cannot be avoided. Again, the rather dark conclusion to me reads as a cautionary note, revealing the problematics of queer ethnic minorities who struggle to find ways to deal with their multiply marginalized backgrounds. Dhalla is also particularly effective at not portraying Pooja as a victim or as a hapless housewife. Dhalla’s novel is a rich addition to the growing group of South Asian American literatures dealing with queer themes that includes Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India, Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine, Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon, and Rakesh Satyal’s Blue Boy.
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